Abstract: Impacts of Neoliberalism on Social Work Practice: Scoping Review of U.S. Research (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Impacts of Neoliberalism on Social Work Practice: Scoping Review of U.S. Research

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Jessica Toft, PhD, LISW, Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St. Paul, MN
Molly Calhoun, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St. Paul, MN
Jessica Mendel, MSW, PhD Student, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St. Paul, MN
Background/Rationale: Neoliberalism is a governing principle studied by many disciplines, yet is not well-known in social work. Neoliberalism promotes free markets by reducing business regulations and withdrawing worker protections. It is a reregulation of social policy, employing state power to pressure citizens to work. Neoliberalism was introduced in social welfare in the 1980s and every level of social provision has been affected: legislation, administrative rules, agency policy, supervisor directives, and direct practice. Historically marginalized communities are particularly vulnerable to neoliberal discipline via corrections, public assistance, and social service systems. Despite its importance, how neoliberalism is conceived and studied is little understood. We conducted a scoping review to present a description of the literature on the impacts of neoliberalism on social work practice in the United States.

Methods/Methodology: Scoping reviews map the literature on a topic, including main concepts, theories, sources, and knowledge gaps. The goal is to ascertain the literature’s extent, capturing variety and characteristics. It is well-suited for knowledge that is heterogeneous in methods or discipline. Using the Arskey and O’Malley (2005) framework, we included peer-reviewed articles containing the terms: neoliberalism or synonyms (privatization, New Public Management, managerialism), social work, social services or human services. Four database searches resulted in a dataset of 1,196 articles, which was imported into Covidence. Two team members blind-screened each article. Conflicts were resolved by team consensus, resulting in 319 articles, then read for inclusion: 132 relevant articles remained. The literature was then mapped using the multilevel governance framework from policy design to direct practice; the supra-levels of ideology and governing logic were added based on relevant theory.

Results: The publication of peer-reviewed articles (n=132) on the impacts of neoliberalism on U.S. social work grew from 14 (1980s) to 55 (2010s). Of these studies, 47.7% employed empirical research methods (which grew fastest) and 52.3% employed conceptual methods. About half (52.3%) the articles were written by social work scholars, but only 39% of articles overall were published in social work journals. The most represented level of the multilevel governance framework was neoliberal governance logic (n=104). Neoliberal ideology/discourse/political reasoning was next (n=62), followed by neoliberal legislative and administrative policy design (n=60) and agency/board/executive director decisions (n=57). Impact on frontline workers (n=36) and supervisors (n=10) were least common. The findings illustrate that social work is conceived by scholars more frequently in the context of government and discursive systems and less as direct practice and supervision, revealing a critical knowledge gap. Furthermore, social work researchers are writing articles about neoliberalism to a greater degree than social work journals are publishing them.

Conclusions: This scoping review is the first systematic analysis of peer-reviewed articles regarding the effects of neoliberalism on social work practice in the United States. While the macro levels of neoliberalism have been commonly studied, direct impacts of neoliberalism on social workers’ practice are less so. Because social workers are often positioned as interpreters and implementers of neoliberal policies for disenfranchised persons, future research should focus on supervision and direct social work practice on clients/citizens well-being.